Friday, January 19, 2018
Ruined: A Play by Lynn Nottage
Playwright Lynn Nottage won her first Pulitzer Prize for this play, commissioned by and premiered in November 2008 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The back of the book reproduces the songs created for the play, musical composition by Dominic Kanza, lyrics by Nottage. The music for “You Come Here to Forget” is fast, using lots of black keys, while “A Rare Bird” has a chord-heavy left hand and a thinly-picked out treble overlaid. The set for this play is a seedy, well-used bar in a small mining town close by a rain forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Congolese government soldiers and rebels broken into factions all patronize Mama Nadi’s bar and her “girls,” the women contracted to her because they were run out of their own families after kidnapping and repeated savage rape by one of the warring parties. All have been psychologically damaged by their experiences, but they usually try to support one another within their current confinement in Mama Nadi’s bar.
The heat is made apparent by the repeated calls for a cold drink, whether beer or Fanta is a matter of some debate. Mama Nadi makes her living offering libation to fighters, and she is proud she has managed well for so long. She does not appear to be afraid. She has regular customers, including a supplier who one day brings her some girls, including one who is “ruined.” Her captors had used a bayonet to rape her; she was in pain, she couldn’t pay her way, and her future was dim.
Mama Nadi is a businesswoman, not a bleeding heart, but upon learning that Sophia can read, sing, and keep accounts, Mama reneges and accepts her into the fold to work essentially as slave labor. The exploitation of one by another happens everywhere everyday in this patch, roiling beneath the surface, and only breaking through on special occasions, like the one that comes near the end of the play.
That occasion comes shortly after we learn of a breathtakingly grotesque act of revenge perpetrated on a nearby mission for suspected betrayal. The tension level at Mama Nadi’s skyrockets when the government troops there learn they just missed by minutes the rebel leader they have been hotly pursuing. Anything which brings on the wrath of either warring party may easily tip into something more dreadful than death.
This extraordinary play is a work of witness to the suffering of the people of the Congo who are pawns in the drama that constitutes their lives. The wealth of minerals in the Congo is paradoxically proving to be a greater curse than a blessing, and the curse has lasted for such a long time. The story is drawn from life: in the back of this book are photographs of the women whose story this is.
Originally conceived as a remake of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, the play took on an entirely different character after Nottage met a group of survivors in the DRC when she visited with collaborator Kate Whoriskey, who writes the introduction to this volume. However, the word 'ruined' survives from Brecht; both the meaning and the interpretation changes several times during the play.
Stage directions allow us to picture this play as it unfolds, to imagine actors, to envision our own rage. However easy it is to conjure up these images, it must be a particularly rich experience to see the work performed. Its simplicity of expression paired with a complexity of human emotion may be the thing that raises this play above its fellows. Definitely worth seeing it performed, the work is ultimately redemptive. But read it if you must, as I have.
This interview with two main cast members also has video of the Washington, D.C. performance where you can hear a bit of the music.
Below is a slide show of the production in Boston, with original music:
And music & clips from the Berkeley performance:
You can buy this book here: Tweet